After Mahmoud Abbas’ convincing victory this week in the election for Palestinian Authority president and the establishment of a new, moderate government in Israel, both Israel and the Palestinians now seem to have pragmatic leaders capable of making peace.
There is quiet optimism on both sides, with both leaders intimating that they will be prepared to make far-reaching concessions if the other side reciprocates with bona-fide peace moves.
But there are huge question marks over whether they will be able to pull it off.
The immediate difficulty is over what must be done to stop the violence. The two sides have very different approaches, and that could make for failure at the very first hurdle. Unless Israel and the Palestinians find a way to settle or circumvent differences over what constitutes a genuine end to violence, the international community may soon find itself having to judge which side is in the right.
Israeli officials say the United States will back them. But they fear that most of the Europeans are likely to support Abbas.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s internal political standing was strengthened Monday with the establishment of a new national unity government. Sharon will have new flexibility to pursue his Gaza disengagement plan with the unity coalition, which brings the Labor Party and United Torah Judaism together with his own Likud Party.
In addition, the leading opposition in the Knesset, which voted 58-56 to approve the government, has made clear that it, too, will back his plan.
On Tuesday, Sharon called Abbas to congratulate him on his victory Sunday. Abbas won 62 percent of the vote in his effort to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died in November, as the president of the Palestinian Authority. According to Israel Radio, Sharon and Abbas agreed to stay in contact and to meet in the coming weeks.
In outlining the Israeli position toward the Palestinians, Sharon has made clear that Abbas must disarm recalcitrant terrorist groups before substantive peace talks can begin. But Abbas said he hopes to achieve a cease-fire without confronting the militias, and that should be enough to get negotiations restarted.
Sharon aides retorted that unless there is a sea change on the Palestinian side, a cease-fire, even if achieved, will not last. Therefore, they said, Israel will not re-engage in peace talks based on the internationally approved “road map” peace plan unless the Palestinians take steps to ensure that violence does not flare up again.
Those steps include collecting terrorist weapons, ending incitement against Israel and instituting key governmental reforms.
A senior Israeli official told JTA that Sharon sees a cease-fire that does not entail disarming of the militias as a dangerous trap, because then, if the Palestinians don’t get what they want at the negotiating table, they simply can revert to terror.
“Israel wants to take terror out of the negotiating equation,” he said. “Unless the terrorist militias are disarmed, it’s like negotiating with a pistol on the table.”
The official said the road map incorporated proposals made by two former U.S. mediators, George Tenet, who tried to negotiate security arrangements between the two sides in 2001 when he was CIA director, and Anthony Zinni, who served as a U.S. peace envoy in 2002. The proposals, which outline specific steps to crack down on terrorists, stipulate how many weapons have to be collected every day.
“A cease-fire can’t be a substitute for action against the terrorist infrastructure,” the official said.
The official also emphasized the importance of Palestinian governmental reforms, arguing that they are essential to enable the Palestinians to control terror.
“For example, if they don’t carry out legal reforms, they won’t be able to try terrorists,” he said. “And if they don’t build jails, they’ll have nowhere to put them.”
Although Abbas, like his predecessor Arafat, shows little willingness to tackle the militias head on, there is no denying that there is a new mood on the Palestinian side that could lead to progress. The buzzword among Palestinians is “change.” There is a widespread belief that change is necessary and possible.
In his victory speech, Abbas spoke about the “struggle ahead,” but that struggle was not in confronting Israel, or, in an Arafat-like vein, in sending “a million martyrs to Jerusalem.”
Rather, Abbas said, the big task would be to build a Palestinian state in which people could live in security.
“There is a difficult mission ahead: To build our state, to achieve security for our people,” he said.
The mission, he said, means giving “our prisoners freedom, our fugitives a life in dignity, to reach our goal of an independent state.”
Abbas’ strategy, it seems, will be to get the international community to press Israel to make concessions. He will try to convince Palestinian radicals that diplomatic pressure by the international community is likely to be far more effective than Palestinian military pressure ever was or could be.
The key to future progress could lie in how he goes about drumming up this pressure. He could simply aim for a cease-fire and avoid any further reform.
But, Israeli pundits noted, there is a lot of talk on the Palestinian side about state-building, reform and putting an end to the prevalent chaos. One of the ways to do that would be to cut the number of armed Palestinian organizations from 14 to three and place them under a single command, as the road map demands.
Abbas would not necessarily disarm the militiamen, but rather persuade them to join one of the three new legitimate forces with their weapons. If he succeeds — and that’s a big if — it will be extremely difficult for Israel to go on claiming that he hasn’t carried out his part of the road map reforms.
For their part, the Palestinians are demanding that Israel lift roadblocks, release prisoners and freeze building on Jewish settlements. They say they need these gestures to persuade the Palestinian people that their new peace-oriented policy is getting them somewhere.
Abbas has said he is afraid Sharon may “let him down” again, the way he did when Abbas was prime minister in 2003, by failing to meet Palestinian expectations for wholesale prisoner releases. Israeli leaders are signaling that they don’t intend to make the same mistake again.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he is ready to hand over West Bank cities to Palestinian security control as soon as Abbas says he is ready. And Sharon said he intends to meet Abbas as soon as possible to discuss security issues.
Clearly, if there is a breakdown, neither side wants to be blamed for it.
Both the United States and Europe have indicated that they will be ready to help the Palestinians economically and to aid them in carrying out security and governmental reforms. But whereas President Bush made it clear that U.S. aid would be contingent on the Palestinians fighting terror, combating corruption and instituting democratic reforms, the Europeans have not laid down any conditions.
For now, even if the Palestinians don’t stop the terror altogether, Israel is likely to try to coordinate its planned unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank with them. The question is what will happen after that. If the Palestinians don’t fight terror, Israeli officials said, Israel will simply “park” along the new lines and stay put for as long as necessary.
But if they do fight terror, the sky could be the limit.
“They will find Israel ready to do things that only a short time ago seemed totally out of the question,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared in a recent TV interview.